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Overview for Dashiell Hammett
Dashiell Hammett

Dashiell Hammett


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Also Known As: Samuel Dashiell Hammett Died: January 1, 1961
Born: May 27, 1894 Cause of Death: cancer
Birth Place: St Mary's County, Maryland, USA Profession: Writer ... novelist screenwriter stevedore messenger detective


A novelist who parlayed his experience as a Pinkerton operative into a series of taut, precisely observed detective fictions, Dashiell Hammett not only revolutionized the genre and elevated it to the stature of true literature, but heavily influenced authors and filmmakers for generations to come. Establishing himself as a short story writer in the pages of the mystery magazine Black Mask in the early 1920s, Hammett enjoyed great success with the publication of his first three novels by the end of the decade. Fame took him to Hollywood where film adaptations of "The Thin Man" (1934), "The Maltese Falcon" (1941) and "The Glass Key" (1942), made Hammett a household name and a wealthy man. Sadly, the end of the author's writing career virtually coincided with the height of his fame. After being blacklisted by Hollywood and spending several months in prison due to his left-leaning politics in 1951, the chronically ill Hammett spent his remaining years in the care of revered playwright Lillian Hellman, his on-again, off-again companion for 30 years. Long after his death, Hammett's influence could be seen in the works of such acclaimed filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa, Sergio Leone and the Coen Brothers, as well as novelists like Ross Macdonald and James Ellroy. A subject of great interest, Hammett himself was portrayed in the films "Julia" (1977) and "Hammett" (1982). While his contribution to American fiction was clear, Hammett's impact on storytelling in the mediums of film and television over the decades could not be overstated.

Born on his family's farm in Saint Mary's County, MD on May 27, 1894, Samuel Dashiell Hammett was the second of three children born to Annie Bond Dashiell and Richard Thomas Hammett. A study in contrasts, Annie came from an established Maryland family with roots in France, while Richard was widely regarded as a reckless, undependable, hard-drinking womanizer. Annie's recurring tuberculosis first necessitated a move to Philadelphia before a job opportunity for the chronically underemployed Richard took the Hammett clan to Baltimore. Although an unremarkable student, Hammett soon became an avid reader, which opened the door for his acceptance at Maryland's Baltimore Polytechnical Institute. Unfortunately, his father's poor health forced the 15-year-old to quit school and take on a series of low-paying menial jobs to help support his struggling family. Never holding a position - which included everything from messenger to day laborer to stevedore - for more than a year, Hammett sowed his wild oats as a young adult, drinking and carousing in the bars of Baltimore.

At the age of 21, with little in the way of career prospects, Hammett responded to a want ad with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1915. Work as an agent with the legendary private law enforcement agency suited Hammett well. There he learned not only the discipline he had lacked as a student and laborer, but also gained an insight into the baser sides of human nature that would serve him well as a writer years later. Even more influential to the future author were the characters and adventures Hammett would constantly reference and return to in his subject matter. He excelled with Pinkerton for the next three years, but quit in 1918 to volunteer as an ambulance driver during World War I. His training was soon cut short after he came down with Spanish flu and contracted tuberculosis, the disease that had plagued his mother. Discharged and declared partially disabled in 1919, Hammett rejoined Pinkerton - if only part time - and moved west to Spokane, WA, where his work frequently involved strikebreaking efforts against the labor unions on behalf of his corporate clients. It was another, somewhat disillusioning period with the agency that would inform his future literary and political leanings.

Another devastating bout of tuberculosis in late 1920 put the nearly skeletal Hammett - over six feet tall, he weighed less the 135 pounds at the time - back in the hospital in Spokane, where he met a nurse by the name of Josephine Nolan. The following year Hammett and the pregnant Nolan married and soon moved to a small apartment in San Francisco, CA. Sickly and barely able to work for Pinkerton, Hammett - who on a doctor's advice moved out of the family apartment so as not to infect his infant daughter - began to dabble in writing as a means of generating much needed income. Having taken several courses at a nearby business college, Hammett started out penning the occasional book review and ad copy, eventually gaining regular work writing advertisements for a jewelry company. Trying his hand at fiction, Hammett published his first short story in an edition of the slick society magazine Smart Set in 1922. Although his stories were being published, another magazine of the time seemed like a better fit for the budding author's grittier style of fiction. In 1923, Hammett published his short story "Arson Plus" in the legendary pulp magazine Black Mask, and with it, gave birth to new genre of crime fiction.

Hammett continued to put out stories like "The Second-Story Angel" and "Bodies Piled Up" in Black Mask in 1923 and one of his most durable tales, "The Tenth Clew" was just one of the many shorts published in Black Mask the following year. These stories all featured what would arguably be the writer's greatest literary creation, the character known as the Continental Op. Clearly a product of Hammett's days as a Pinkerton, the Op (short for "operative") was an agent with the fictional Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco office. Nameless and emotionally detached, the Op was above all supremely professional. Having found his literary voice, Hammett's writing career expanded even as his health remained fragile. Lengthier short stories, like "The Big Knockover" and "$106,000 Blood Money" preceded four short tales that were serialized in Black Mask and later published by Alfred Knopf, Inc in 1929 as Hammett's debut novel, Red Harvest. Once again starring the Continental Op in a bloody tale of a small town torn apart by competing criminal factions, it boasted a shockingly high body count and later inspired the works of such filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone.

By now separated from his wife, Hammett quickly followed up with his second novel, The Dain Curse in 1929. A lengthy, convoluted mystery involving a supposed family curse, a bogus religious cult, drugs and murder, it once again featured the stoic Continental Op. Writing at a furious pace, Hammett next published what would be his seminal work, The Maltese Falcon in 1930. Featuring a new character, the private eye Sam Spade, it reinvented the detective novel as it was then known. Supremely professional like the Op, Spade differed in the sense that he had a name and past, as well as a bitter, sardonic outlook and more than a little moral ambiguity. Spade, combined with Brigid O'Shaughnessy, the prototype for the femme fatale, virtually created what would become known as "hard boiled" detective fiction. The Maltese Falcon was an instant bestseller and made Hammett a bona fide literary star. After a brief heady visit to New York - where he caroused with such celebrated wits and personalities as Dorothy Parker - Hammett relocated to Los Angeles, where Paramount Pictures hired him to work on screenplays.

Hammett's fourth novel, 1931's The Glass Key was the story of a racketeer who goes to great lengths to clear his best friend from murder charges that could potentially start a gang war. Hammett dedicated it to his then-girlfriend Nell Martin and later regarded it as the best of his novels. While working in Hollywood, Hammett began an affair with script reader and future revered playwright Lillian Hellman. Despite Hammett's mercurial personality, heavy drinking and frequent womanizing, the couple remained close until Hammett's death 30 years later. At the height of his fame in 1934, Hammett's next novel The Thin Man was largely inspired by his lavish, alcohol-soaked lifestyle with Hellman. The story of former detective Nick Charles and his socialite wife, Nora, who become embroiled in a murder mystery, it was highlighted by witty banter between Nick and Nora, along with copious amounts of booze. It was also Hammett's final full-length book.

Throughout the second half of the 1930s, Hammett devoted the majority of his energies to left-wing politics, joining the Screenwriters Guild and later the American Communist Party. In the meantime, Hammett lived exceptionally well off of the royalties earned from his popular novels and a string of film adaptations, most notably the big screen adaptation of "The Thin Man" (1934). Starring William Powell and Myrna Loy as the socialite detectives Nick and Nora Charles, the witty mystery, filled with razor sharp repartee and endless cocktails, was an instant box office smash. Over the next 13 years a series of five film sequels followed, all starring the immensely popular duo of Powell and Loy. A big screen (and somewhat sanitized) version of "The Glass Key" (1935), starred George Raft as a bodyguard trying to clear his best friend and boss - a powerful politician played by Edward Arnold - of a trumped up murder charge.

The third and most successful adaptation of his third novel starred Humphrey Bogart as the sardonic Spade in director John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). Part whodunit, part treasure hunt, it featured the talents of Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre as unscrupulous characters all lusting after the titular statuette. Huston's directorial debut and Bogart's breakout film, it went on to become universally regarded as one of the greatest noir films ever made. Another, more faithful, version of "The Glass Key" (1942) starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake hit theaters the following year, further establishing the aesthetic of film noir. Other than his uncredited contributions to several scripts, the novelist's sole screenwriting credit came with the wartime drama "Watch on the Rhine" (1943), based on a play by Hellman and starring Bette Davis. For the most part, Hammett had little to do with these productions, as his energies were devoted to gaining acceptance into the Army after the outbreak of World War II. Finally, at the age of 47, the author was admitted into the service, although his poor health relegated Hammett to duty as a staff editor for a camp newspaper, stationed on the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska.

Upon returning from the war, Hammett once again focused on his left-leaning political activities. He was elected President of the Civil Rights Congress in 1946, a liberal organization that was branded as a Communist front group by the U.S. government the following year. As a trustee of a CRC "bail fund" created for the purpose of securing the release of defendants the organization deemed to have been arrested for political reasons, Hammett was subpoenaed by a New York court in 1951 and questioned after four men - convicted of conspiracy charges - fled prior to serving their sentences. Refusing to answer a single question as to the men's whereabouts, Hammett repeatedly evoked his Fifth Amendment right. Found in contempt of court, the author was sentenced to a federal penitentiary, where he served five months. After his release, Hammett was promptly charged by the IRS with thousands of dollars in back taxes. Later investigated by Senator Joseph McCarthy and blacklisted by Hollywood after refusing to cooperate with the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Hammett the man, if not his books, had largely fallen out of favor in America.

Noticeably frail after his time in prison, Hammett lived in seclusion at a rented cabin in a rural town north of New York City until a heart attack in 1955 prompted Hellman to care for him at her Manhattan apartment two years later. During this time Peter Lawford and Phyllis Kirk appeared as Nick and Nora in a brief television outing as "The Thin Man" (NBC, 1957-59), though the chances of Hammett benefitting from this latest exploitation of his famous work was slim. He would spend the remaining four years of his life in steadily declining health until he died of lung cancer in 1961 at the age of 66 with Hellman still serving as caretaker. As a veteran of two wars, Dashiell Hammett was buried the Arlington National Cemetery.

Over the decades that followed, Hammett's undeniable influence continued to grow, not only among his fellow writers, but future filmmakers, as well. While Raymond Chandler and Ross Macdonald were considered his immediate successors in the genre of hardboiled detective fiction, Hammett's shadow loomed large across the pages of works by later practitioners of the craft, including Donald Westlake and James Ellroy. Revered Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" (1961) was widely considered to be inspired by Red Harvest, although the director himself once stated that he had been more influenced by the Alan Ladd version of "The Glass Key." Whatever the case, Sergio Leone's classic trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns that began with "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964) reinterpreted Kurosawa's bloody ronin tale and even more explicitly patterned Clint Eastwood's iconic Man with No Name character after Hammett's Continental Op.

In later, often looser, interpretations of Hammett's work, "The Maltese Falcon" was lovingly spoofed in the parody sequel "The Black Bird" (1975), starring George Segal as Sam Spade, Jr., while the revered author's relationship with Hellman was seen in the acclaimed drama "Julia" (1977), winning an Oscar for Jason Robard's portrayal of Hammett. His second novel was adapted into "The Dain Curse" (CBS, 1978), a miniseries starring James Coburn. Even more fanciful was the Wim Wenders-directed and Francis Ford Coppola-produced "Hammett" (1982), starring Frederic Forrest as a fictionalized version of the aspiring novelist, called back into action by a former Pinkerton colleague after a Chinese prostitute goes missing in 1920s-era San Francisco. Clearly influenced by Hammett's works, the Coen Brothers' debut film "Blood Simple" (1984) took its title from a line out of Red Harvest and their violent gangland saga "Miller's Crossing" (1990) owed much of its plot to the theme of male friendship in The Glass Key. Fittingly, in 2005 TIME magazine's critics placed Hammett's Red Harvest on its list of 100 best English-language novels published since 1925.

By Bryce Coleman

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